I just took a look at New America Foundation’s (NAF) report on drone attacks in Pakistan which concludes that the rate of civilian deaths from these flying killer robots (h/t High Clearing) attacks is 32 percent. Is it just me or is the report full of some fairly problematic stuff? The authors of the report Peter Bergen, CNN’s “national security analyst” and researcher Katherine Tiedemann, compiled data on American drone attacks in Pakistan from “reliable” English language news media. The news organizations that made the cut include the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC. They also used Pakistani English-language media: the Daily Times, Dawn, and the News—as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network.
Unstable Data. These are influential names to be sure, but reliable…? Remember the Iraq War? Remember Judy Miller? Remember the financial crisis? It’s no longer possible to simply assert the reliability of major news organizations especially when it comes to reporting on conflict areas. And, the news organizations in Pakistan, while aggressive in pursuing civilian politicians, are known to have a deep aversion to crossing the military which itself seems to be divided on the issue of the flying killer robots. They also have a practice–this is especially true of the English language media–of loosely following the western media line sometimes, even to the point of literally repeating the western media organizations. This often puts Pakistanis in the bizarre position of opening their newspaper and reading news about Pakistan that’s been filtered through, most often, the NYT. See for example this report in a national Pakistani newspaper on Mullah Baradar’s arrest which says: “The New York Times and other US media cited US government officials as saying that US and Pakistani intelligence services arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi.” Or, here’s a story about Pakistan’s nuclear production in the leading English-language daily, Dawn. The headline reads: “Pakistan Planning to Expand Nuclear Production: NYT”. Dawn took the story from NYT which in turn took it from a newswire, Agence France-Presse. And, here’s one by the English-language Daily Times which reproduced for their story, CNN’s entire script for the same story about a fashion show in Karachi. Yes, the local papers have contacts and know what’s going on, but you’re unlikely to see it in print.
I’d take what these news organizations say with a glassful of salt. Here’s what B&T say about their rationale:
Our research draws only on accounts from reliable media organizations with deep reporting capabilities in Pakistan….As a whole, these news organizations cover the drone strikes as accurately and aggressively as possible, and though we don’t claim our research has captured every single death in every drone strike—particularly those before 2008, when the pace of the program picked up dramatically—it has generated some reliable open-source information about the number of militant leaders killed, a fairly strong estimate of the number of lower-level militants killed, and a reliable sense of the true civilian death rate. (p2, “The Year of the Drone”)
But from where are the news organizations getting their information given that much of the area is off-limits to reporters? A cursory glance at some of the articles B&T cite for their evidence shows a pretty common formula in the news reports. The beginning of the article usually says something like so: X number of militants were killed , a security official said. These security officials are, of course, nearly always anonymous, that is, they cannot be held accountable. We don’t know whether these are local folk or Army folk or, for that matter, the ISI. We know nothing about them, their interests, their position and thus can make no judgment about their claims. Now, while the word “alleged”–as in alleged militant–appears to have disappeared from the lexicon of said media organizations when it comes to attacks by flying killer robots on Pakistan, this is effectively how the news report ought to be read because it’s telling you: This is what the anonymous official said, but hey, we don’t know because there are no eyewitness accounts nor is it verified by an independent body. In fact, it’s usually only supported by another one or two anonymous “security” or “administrative” officials.
Secondly, B&T can claim that they militate against error by citing multiple news sources, but that simply shows a deep ignorance about how reporting is done in remote areas of Pakistan, something they might’ve looked into before proceeding with their first grade arithmetic. Despite the multiple news media organizations cited, it’s highly likely that the stringers who get the information are speaking to the same anonymous source(s). It’s common for reporters/stringers to try and inculcate relationships with higher-ups to get information, and there are usually a few point people within bureaucratic institutions like the police who get called upon by journalists. So, it’s likely that it’s the same people giving information to several news organizations. All multiple citing does in this case then is to produce an echo chamber of the same official line, a line spoken by some anonymous official.
Generally speaking, there are fairly few stringers covering large swaths of Fata. These stringers often end up relying on personal relations in small villages and towns for their information. They are not usually able to ascertain the veracity of the figures given by officials. And, because nobody wants to get nailed, reporters generally arrive at some loose consensus about how many people were killed. (This is common practice and happens in other reporting too.) As a general rule, you might think of reporters and stringers as a kind of reporting tribe with a shared culture and interests. In the absence of statistics from eyewitnesses or on-the-scene accounts, media folk generally cleave close to the official account of what happened and who was killed. They are also more likely to stick to the “official” figures because of officialdom’s claims to authority. (Much of this is not particular to Pakistan either.) So, for a host of reasons, the reporting capabilities actually aren’t that deep, contra B&T’s claim. One of NAF’s own ‘experts’ made the same observation during a recent event co-sponsored by NAF, and Foreign Policy, where policy analyst Hassan Abbas said this (click on the icon to see relevant video):
The people of the region, especially Fata and NWFP will be more convinced about the effectiveness of US policy especially in terms of the drone attacks when they will routinely know who is the person killed…We often hear after the event that no 3 of Taliban or al Qaeda was killed and that’s often the first time we’re hearing the names of those people. There is a lot of controversy. Who is the neutral body which is giving a judgment?…So, I’m not ready to buy what the person who is shooting is saying or the person who are the parties [sic] related to that which have interest on the ground. Any third party will tell us out of 10 hits how many are working. I hope it is working. i hope Ayman al Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden are hit by these drone attacks, but that has not happened yet. And, related to this, then there is a political fallout.
I think a case was made belatedly that there are much less civilian casualties than projected in the media and because of that –we must also understand that in Fata, in that area, there’s no credible reporting. They have very few journalists on the ground. It is often from telephone from one person. You’ll not get a chance to really corroborate that story, but based on what we know from some of the credible journalists who get a chance to go there and come back –and then you have to decipher also from within the military briefings also and the civilian statements what the reality is: The people are really distressed. In that kind of –which I’d mentioned has a psychological impact–in that distress, I doubt if they are thinking in any positive terms about US or the US presence in Afghanistan or the Pakistan military’s operations in those area….(emphasis mine)
Now, on one hand, unnamed officials are calling nearly everyone who dies a militant; on the other hand Pakistani authorities have claimed that nearly 700 civilians died in 2009 in a separate study which B&T view skeptically. So, who are we to believe? Are these the same officials playing a double-game? More to the point for this post: why do B&T evince such healthy skepticism for one set of official figures but seem to swallow the other set once they’ve been printed up by “reliable” media organizations who carried out no independent verification? B&T reproduce opinion as fact by counting every unverified death as a militant simply because some unnamed official said so. You can’t do that and claim you have a reliable estimate of militant v. civilian deaths. Well, you can and they do, but they’re wrong.
Little by little, the reporting process has been building an archive written by the powerful that is now being accessed by think tanks to support official American policy. This isn’t an indictment of stringers who work for scandalously little pay especially when compared to the bloated bungalows of their English-speaking, superiors in Islamabad, but it is a critique of B&T’s analysis. The instability of the evidence should have been a key point of discussion. It’s also kind of basic social science. That it’s never thought out in the report nor been questioned since is a testament to a kind of control, following Bourdieu, of the social cognitive map. Reports like NAF’s study and think tanks whose work largely seems to involve attaching apparently objective numbers to official positions in order to lend them the air of disinterested truth reproduce this kind of social control. This is the role of experts: as arbiters of legitimate knowledge. They decide who counts and who doesn’t.
Militants, Civilians and Assumptions. What’s the definition of a militant for B&T? We never get one in this report. It appears to be a bit like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the closest they get to clarifying it for us:
One challenge in producing an accurate count is that it is often not possible to differentiate precisely between militants and civilians in these circumstances, as militants live among the population and don’t wear uniforms. For instance, when Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone last August, one of his wives and his father-in-law died in the strike as well. (p3)
Let’s parse this a bit. Yes, it’s true that militants don’t wear uniforms and do live among the population. But then, so do soldiers much of the time. Does that justify a bombing say in the NYC subway or Fort Dix in NJ because hell, American soldiers do live there among the population. (To be clear: it doesn’t.) And in the Mehsud example that they provide, they’ve pretty clearly distinguished here between Mehsud, his wives and his father-in-law. In other words, this is not an example of inability to distinguish between Mehsud and his family members. It’s rather an example of not bothering to distinguish: The bomb struck his home. They intended to strike his home. (Unlike American soldiers, locals don’t have the luxury of fighting in other people’s countries where the collateral damage is borne by others’ families.) The problem now actually appears to be as follows: should the family members of of known Taliban et al be considered militants by dint of their association? And that gets to an underlying tendency in current imperial thought on this subject. A soldier is a soldier because of what he does. The uniform signifies his/ her duty or job. S/he sheds it as lightly as s/he does his/ her clothes. But a militant is not defined by what he does. It’s who he is. A soldier is a job; a militant is an ideology and that’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between Mehsud the Militant and his family who may have believed his ideology in their hearts even if they never picked up a gun. And that’s why bombing a home is perfectly ok. In fact, in several of the accounts, people were apparently killed while they were in cars or homes.
What is also striking in the report is how studiously–and ideologically–the authors maintain a separation between the violence perpetrated by killer robots and the violence perpetrated by militants. For example, take this:
Despite the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October. (p4)
Why does this paragraph begin with “despite” especially since it notes that the figures for suicide attacks have gone up rather than down concomittant to the increase in American attacks? It could just as well make sense to write this paragraph as follows:
Despite [Because of] the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October.
The “despite” functions as an ideological marker. Indeed, towards the end of their study, the authors themselves note:
Third, although the drone strikes have disrupted militant operations, their unpopularity with the Pakistani public and their value as a recruiting tool for extremist groups may have ultimately increased the appeal of the Taliban and al Qaeda, undermining the Pakistani state. This is more disturbing than almost anything that could happen in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and about six times the population. (emphasis mine) (p5)
Well, that’s pretty damning and gets to a critical issue regarding the effectiveness of death-by-killer-robot which is the subject of their study. If the attacks are creating more militants, then um, isn’t that, like, a major problem or something? The authors, however, leave it at that. Part of the reason that there’s no follow-through on this issue of action and reaction is because they have to get to their conclusion (guess what it is!). But, it’s also because, as per my earlier point, a militant is what you are; there is no action and reaction because what the militant does is guided by his ideology or by a charismatic leader so warranting “leadership decapitation” (literally. see NAF’s Sameer Lalwani for this argument) or by his Islam or by his madness but whatever it is, it’s utterly divorced from anything the Empire is doing. (To be clear: I do not hold the position that the Taliban et al are anti-imperialists. I’m only discussing issues of causality here.) Marked as Muslim, (brown) and enraged, ‘the militant’ signifies the Orientalist racisms of western analysts. An angry Muslim is indistinguishable from a militant. They disappear into each other, the Muslim and the Militant. This Muslim-Militant is locked in its own world outside the history of the west. For an unsophisticated but refreshingly blunt version of this, read Bernard Lewis. And so, following suit, despite B&T’s concern for civilian deaths–they write “Trying to ascertain the real civilian death rate from the drone strikes is important both as a moral matter and as a matter of international law which prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians”–the categories in their data are divided as follows:
- al Qaeda/Taliban leaders killed
- al Qaeda/ Taliban killed (what they describe as “low level militants”)
Whither the civilian? There aren’t any because they are finally indistinguishable and inseparable. “Others” is not a legal category, but it is a telling moral one. Here, then is the apropos conclusion:
Despite the controversy, drone strikes are likely to remain a critical tool for the United States to disrupt al Qaeda and Taliban operations and leadership structures. Though these strikes consistently kill Pakistani civilians, which angers the population, and prompt revenge attacks from the militants, Pakistani and U.S. strategic interests have never been more closely aligned against the militants than they are today….
The drone attacks in the tribal regions seem to remain the only viable option for the United States to take on the militants based there who threaten the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Westerners alike. (p6)
But, dear Reader, you already knew this was where they had to end up, didn’t you?
Meanwhile, having successfully laundered unnamed official opinion into a bright white fact, B&T can now reproduce their work as “expert knowledge” in an op-ed in the NYT today where they claim that despite the secrecy of the flying killer robot program, they’ve been able to get a “reliable” civilian casualty count. They then cite their civilian casualty rate for 2009 alone (29 percent) which is lower than the all time casualty rate that tops their report (32 percent). The 2009 figure is then seconded by an even lower estimate given by a US official. The Pakistani study is nowhere to be found because ultimately, in the context of current power-relations, it appears less authoritative and less truthful than what the American truthmakers produce. Truth, as Foucault noted, is an “effect” produced by power-relations.
And every time a flying killer robot attacks, an expert is born.